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It’s Griffey Time!

“I don’t see why he shouldn’t make the team. He plays good defense and he definitely has the power. He wouldn’t hurt.”

—Jay Buhner on Ken Griffey, Jr.
  September 30, 1988

The first and only time I saw Ken Griffey Jr. up close and personal was on the Kingdome field. I was interviewing Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus before batting practice, and, as we talked, the players emerged slowly from the locker room and soon the steady crack of the bat was heard in the background. When I asked Dave how good a judge of baseball talent he had become after thirty years in the biz, he nodded over my left shoulder. “Well, the minute you set foot on number 24 over there when he was an eighteen year-old kid down in camp, you knew he was a can’t-miss prospect.” I turned. Ah, Griffey. About ten feet away. But I was in a work-mode rather than a play-mode and turned away.

Only when the interview was over did I contemplate the superstar. He was mired in an early season slump, inching rather than bounding his way towards his 200th career homerun. Yet he didn’t seem to be taking batting practice very seriously. He kept clowning with some kid who was standing by the third base side. Who was this boy? Some scion of northwest industry? Some privileged son of an Ellis or Woodward or Armstrong?

Later, Jay Buhner raced by, and Junior called to him in a teasing voice. “Oh Jay. Could you come here a minute, Jay?” Buhner made a reluctant u-turn and introductions were made with an embarrassed but obviously thrilled woman. The boy’s mother? A friend of a friend? Buhner gave her a quick hug and was gone. In his wake, it was suggested that Junior get the Buhner buzz.

“Naw, I’m gonna grow one of them big afros like in the ‘70s,” Junior replied, anticipating his Turn-Back-the-Clock Night gag. “And get porkchop sideburns like my Dad had. You know them porkchop sideburns my Dad had?”

The recipient of the Buhner hug, it turned out, was Cindy Hoppner, Director of Make-A-Wish of Washington State, while the boy was Michael Craig, 11, from Pittsburgh, who, a year and a half earlier, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease.

“My son plays baseball and he really likes baseball and Ken epitomized to him what a baseball player is,” Janet Craig, Michael’s mother, told me by phone recently. “He gets nothing but good press. [Michael] saw him at the All-Star Game, the homerun derby—you know how kids talk about those. And he’s from Denora, Pennsylvania. To us he’s a Pittsburgher.”

Janet Craig fondly recalled their four-day trip to Seattle: treated to a four-course breakfast at Snoqualmie Falls, a limo-ride to the Kingdome, seats behind the dugout. During the game Junior tossed a game-ball to Michael and the other kids went crazy with jealousy. But, she says, “what really impressed me most about Griffey was how he took Michael aside, took him up to the batting cages, and pulled him away from the media, so he could spend time alone with him. And he talked to him. Must have been a total of two and a half hours. He took him back to his locker room for a while. Michael’s very quiet—although he enjoyed it, he gets shy—so Ken had to do most of the talking.”

Ms. Hoppner says Junior gets an average of two such requests per month from children with life-threatening illnesses; he grants each one.

“It’s not an obligatory moment that he spends with them,” M’s announcer Rick Rizzs says. “He sits down there in the dugout, talks with them, laughs with them, cracks jokes with them... He spends quality time with these kids and it’s something they’ll never, ever forget for the rest of their lives.”

Not to get too “Pride of the Yankees” about this, but that night, after a nine-game drought, Junior hit two homeruns. None of them apparently promised.

* * *

This is the Ken Griffey Jr. we love to love in Seattle: the smiling, joking, charitable Natural. Someone who is decent not whenever the media is around (like, say, Reggie Jackson), but despite its presence. Someone who makes everything on the field—from robbing Jesse Barfield of a homerun to spending time with a shy boy with a life-threatening illness—look easy. He is to Seattle what Michael Jordan is to Chicago, what the Kennedys are to Massachusetts.

And he knows it. Which is part of the problem. “Hand,” a phrase from the TV show “Seinfeld,” means upper-hand in a relationship. And in his relationship with Seattle, Ken Griffey Jr. has always had “hand.” We’ve always needed him more than he’s needed us. While trade rumors perennially circulate around Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner, few such rumors come close to Junior. With him it’s the opposite: not the threat that we’ll ditch him, but the threat that he’ll ditch us.

In October 1992, Junior anticipated only 200 more games with the Mariners. “If I don’t sign a long-term contract this winter or halfway through next season, I will play out my option anyway,” he told the Seattle Times.

May 1994 brought fireworks. “I can’t see staying. Losing is killing me. It’s killing me.”

We over-indulge him. He wants to bat third so he does. He doesn’t like ‘the Kid’ nickname so it vanishes like Jimmie Hoffa. In 1995, the Orioles were all set to sign Jay Buhner until Junior stepped in and blocked the deal. This year, fireworks momentarily stopped after Mariner homeruns because Junior claimed the smoke messed with his vision.

1997 has brought more head-scratching comments from Griffey. He gets no respect. No respect? Who else is cheered in opposition ballparks when they hit homeruns? He doesn’t get the banners at the Kingdome that Edgar and Alex and Joey get. Probably; but then no one’s suggested calling the new stadium ‘The House that Joey Built’ either. His younger brother, Craig, playing AA ball, should never have been cut from the organization. The exhibition game in Zebulon, North Carolina, was a joke. The M’s front office is third rate. People expect too much from him. Fans shouldn’t boo.

Of course some of his complaints make sense. Fireworks indoors? Whose idea was that? The scheduling of the exhibition game was short-sighted as well. And no one was very happy with the front office after the Jose Cruz Jr. debacle.

As for high expectations, well, Junior only has himself to blame. Throughout his career, he’s often exceeded the impossible standards others set for him. “He should be in the Majors in three years,” they said in 1987. Make that two. “He could hit 25 to 30 homeruns a year,” they said in 1988. Make that 40 or 50. He could be another Dave Parker, another Dave Winfield, another Willie Mays. Why, he might just be the greatest player ever to play the game!

It’s gotten to the point where we’re disappointed when he doesn’t hit more homeruns in a single season than anyone in baseball history. You mean he’s not going to break Maris’ record? What a bum!

* * *

It’s easy to forget, since he’s still so young, but Junior’s been in the white-hot media spotlight for over a decade now. It was June 1, 1987 when the Mariners, over the objections of then-owner George Argyros, drafted Ken Griffey Jr., all of 17 years old, first overall in the amateur draft. A week later he took batting practice cuts at the Kingdome (“Wow! Let’s play him tonight,” said third-base coach Ozzie Virgil), before being assigned to the Class A Bellingham Mariners. In his first professional at-bat, he hit a three-run homer. Was he popular? Check this out: Despite a losing record, Bellingham’s average attendance that year rose from 403 to 1067. The following year, playing for the San Bernardino Spirits, he wasn’t introduced like the other players. Instead, P.A. announcer Dave Achord would bellow, “Iiiiiit’s Griffey time!” and the place would go wild. He had his own poster; he was featured on ESPN, This Week in Baseball, ABC News, and Sports Illustrated. Hewon the league’s MVP award.

But criticism trailed after Griffey like a piece of toilet paper stuck to his shoe. He didn’t run out grounders. He made catches one-handed. All in all, he was just too casual. Even the compliments were veiled criticisms.

“I think Kenny, wherever he goes, is going to match the level of competition—then play down to that level,” Jeff Malinoff, one-time Mariner director of player development, said in 1988.

“When he finally buckles down and gets serious about this game,” Mariner hitting coach Gene Clines told Sports Illustrated in 1990, “there’s no telling what kind of numbers he will put on the board.”

Yet accomplishments kept piling up. He made the team at 19. In his first Major League at-bat he hit a double off Oakland’s Dave Stewart. In his first Kingdome at-bat, he hit a solo homerun off Eric Young of the White Sox. He and Ken Griffey Sr. are the only father-son combo to play in the Majors at the same time, to play for the same team (in 1990), to hit back-to-back homeruns (off the Angels’ Kirk McCaskill). In July 1993, Junior himself went deep eight times in eight consecutive games to tie a Major League record. He led the league in dingers in the strike-shortened ‘94 season, and in 1995 tied Reggie Jackson for the most homeruns (5) in a post-season series. Last year, despite missing a month with a broken hamate bone, he delivered a personal best 49 moon-shots. He holds the record for most homeruns by the end of April (13 in ‘97), the end of May (24 in ‘97), the end of June (32 in ‘94). Yet, perversely, he doesn’t think of himself as a homerun hitter.

How about a glove man? He’s won the Gold Glove every year since 1990 and made so many spectacular catches that we can’t remember them all. In 1990 he robbed Jesse Barfield of his 200th career homerun, coming down with the ball held aloft and a joyous grin lighting up his face. The next year he made his famous “Spiderman” catch off Rueben Sierra—spikes caught in the foam padding in right-center field so that it appeared he was clinging to the wall. In ‘95 he tried to duplicate that feat from a greater distance and shattered his wrist. Early press reports mention a throw that nailed Lou Whitaker at third, and a catch against Wade Boggs in Fenway Park. “We’ve all seen it on replay on television,” Harold Reynolds said back then. Not anymore. He is too routinely spectacular. If a great catch is worth a million dollars then Ken Griffey Jr. is Bill Gates.

His greatest baseball moment, ironically, involves the very thing he’s most often criticized for: running the basepaths. Anyone watching the speed and athletic grace (not a wasted motion) and absolute determination on his face as he cut the corner at third in the 11th inning of Game 5 knew Junior would score that night and send the Mariners to the 1995 ALCS. A moment later he was mobbed. The glee on his face as he is covered by a canopy of teammates is like that of a child hiding from his parents beneath his bed. All of Seattle wore that smile the next day. Yet the play fueled more criticism. Why doesn’t he run that way all the time? He can do it. We’ve seen him do it.

Through it all Junior has remained himself. At 17 he said, “I don’t have to be anybody but me. I’m happy being me...” During recent gripes he was asked if he wished he were someone else. “No. Why should I? I got two great parents, two great kids, a great wife.” He’s said over and over again that he just wants to have fun playing baseball. He just seems to have trouble accepting the downside of that proposition: the fame, the lack of privacy; he laments not being able to take his kids to the movies; 9-to-5ers don’t understand what he goes through, he says. He’s overly sensitive. In an age when most professional athletes don’t care what fans think, he’s out there counting banners, adding up giveaway nights. Post-homerun comments often bring mention of a razzing fan he had to show up: someone dissing on his shoes; someone making fun of his shattered wrist.

“Last week, the people of Seattle wanted to trade me,” Griffey recently stated. “You listen to KJR and everybody else, and they say trade me and put Alex in center. They say, ‘We don’t need him’.”

KJR? Alex in center? The people on talk radio also believe the U.S. Government is hiding tiny moon-men. So what?

“They said I wasn’t doing anything this year,” Griffey continued. “That bothered me. I go out there and play hard every day.”

Junior should keep in mind that not all fans are like the KJR callers. Some are like Mike Livingston, the owner of U Trading Cards, and the man who caught Junior’s 46th homerun ball in September 1996. Forty-six was a new personal milestone for Junior, and a Mariner official approached Livingston soon after the catch.

“Mr. Griffey would like to have that ball.”

“Do we get to meet him?” Livingston asked.

In the fifth inning, Livingston and his six year-old daughter were taken to the M’s locker room. “I expected him to be brusque, matter-of-fact,” Livingston remembers, “but he spent several minutes with us and was exceptionally nice to my daughter.” The ball was exchanged for an autographed bat.

“I could have easily bargained for a jock or whatever people bargain for.” Livingston changes his voice. “I want your uniform, your hat, and your birth certificate! Which is fine, because the players can certainly afford it. They have lots of uniforms and lots of bats, but it just wasn’t something I was interested in doing.” Instead he got something more valuable: “Just a real pleasant experience.”

* * *

M’s fans should keep this story in mind as well. For if Junior is spoiled he’s not the only one. What other team has such a rich trove of not only genuine talent but decent players and colorful characters to root for? So what if Junior doesn’t hustle like A-Rod? So what if he doesn’t draw walks like Buhner? Is it too difficult to root for a man who consistently puts up 40 HR, 100 RBI, .300 numbers? Who is one of the best defensive players in the game? Who talks, not of salary renegotiation (like Barry Bonds), but salary deferment? Who would rather spend time with children than the media?

The night after his Make-A-Wish day, Michael Craig and his mother were invited back to the Kingdome and spent the game in Junior’s special section in center field. “The whole game we’re yelling down, ‘Junior! Junior!’,” Janet Craig remembers. “And he kept looking up—he kind of looks up anyway at the crowd. Toward the end of the game we got down by the railing. And we’re screaming at the top of our voice, ‘Junior! Junior!’, and he turned around and took off his cap and said, ‘Bye Mike.’ And I’ll tell you what, that meant so much... Because it was like we were somebody to Ken, not just a one-night thing. It was very special. The whole thing was very special.”

—originally published in The Grand Salami, September 1997